My daughter recently showed me a music video that she knew I'd enjoy. It was a country tune sung by a father on memory lane, reminiscing about his little girl’s youth now that she was all grown up. Walking through the town in which his daughter once skipped and played, he thinks back to all the things he didn’t realize he’d miss one day, and reminds the rest of us that before we know it, we’ll surely feel the same. It was the perfect song for a sappy, sentimental Virginia boy turned adult with kids growing up too fast. I loved it.

I can imagine listeners of the song taking a message about appreciating what you have before wishing you had it back. Or about the differences between youthful dreams and adult nostalgia. (Or about the need for more good 'ol Jewish country music, y'all.) But what struck me most was the stark reminder of how easily we miss things even when they’re happening right in front of us. 

We will all one day reflect upon parts of our past with wistful affection. Other memories will elicit regret or sadness from not having picked up on what we now realize was important at the time. We'll almost certainly wonder how we could have missed things that seem so obvious looking back. This ubiquitous human experience - none of us will escape it - points to the challenge of tuning into facets of life that our future selves will wish we had noticed.

Layers of living

Our daily existence contains several layers of experience, some of which we are aware of and some we do not see. The truth is that most of us are in tune with only a sliver of what’s happening with ourselves and those we love.

I recall working with a man who had been married for 10 years who, when asked why his wife was anxious, had virtually no insight to offer. He had been so focused on the substance of her complaints - often about the kids - and on his constant attempts to tamp down her stress, that he had missed what was really going on for her. It turned out that beneath her grievances was a well of uncertainty about her adequacy as a wife and mother. He had no idea about any of this. An entire swath of her experience had been lost on him, boiled down instead to the rantings of an annoying wife and a husband who felt clueless, helpless, and resentful.

Sometimes we even miss ourselves. For instance, if you were to tune into what’s happening in your mind and body right now, you would likely detect things that you didn’t fully know were there. With some quiet self-examination, you’d find thoughts and feelings that may be a revelation even to you. How is it possible to surprise yourself? The answer is that a good chunk of our experience is not readily apparent and requires a deeper dive before we can see it. Despite the huge amount of mental and emotional activity streaming through our system at any given moment, much of it remains hidden until we discover it. 

As a psychotherapist, I am often looking for clues to what has been missed. I routinely ask clients to notice a word they just used, acknowledge a feeling coming up, or listen closely to something their spouse said. These facets of experience can slip under the radar of recognition until pointed out. In fact, one way of conceptualizing the work of therapy is giving people access to the parts of their experience that they have not noticed, in order to develop a more accurate picture with which to make better and more informed decisions. Without this fuller awareness, we are liable to miss things that are crucial to understanding what’s really going on

Why do we miss things? 

There’s something about the human brain that causes us to gloss over the fine print of life. Partially, we do this out of necessity - there is simply too much incoming information for our neural receptors to pick up, so we have no choice but to subconsciously select what to pay attention to.

We also filter things out because of our agenda, which causes us to see only what we’re looking for. I once observed a therapeutic exercise in which a client began by sharing several difficult scenes from his youth, along with the accompanying subtext about his own worthlessness. The therapist then asked him to view the same scenes, but without any commentary, similar to removing the captions from a newspaper comic and being left with just the pictures. The client was given the opportunity to fill in the captions with his own words, which turned out to be an entirely different narration of the events (the one he wished his parents had given him). His version included important pieces of his experience that had been altogether overlooked. Same scenes, completely different story. We see what we wish to see.

We all fall prey to spotting only what we’re interested in, or what fits into our narrative, or what we’re already familiar with and expect to find. It takes a degree of openness and willingness to look deeper into the rest of the picture. When we do, we realize that what we see depends not on what is looked upon, but on us, the ones looking.

Picking up reality

Moshe Rabbeinu taught us the lesson of seeing more. In his farewell address on the banks of the Jordan River, Moshe told us “You have seen all that Hashem did before your eyes in the land of Egypt… the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes” (Devarim 29:1-2). Yet, in the very next verse, Moshe tells us “Hashem had not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see (einayim lir’ot) or ears to hear until this day.” It seems that although we saw Hashem’s wonders in Egypt, we didn’t really see them until 40 years later.

Much had transpired during our sojourn in the desert. We had become a nation, received and learned the Torah, and developed unwavering belief in Hashem. We had transformed as a people, so our view of past events had changed as well. We had refined our vision into that of einayim lir’ot, looking with eyes that could really see.

Developing einayim lir’ot requires patience. While I have yet to do a 40-year session, I have witnessed the power of taking the time to discern more. Invariably, an interesting thing happens: as time slows, space expands. More dimensions of life bubble up. More thoughts, recollections, and feelings float to the surface. What had been outside awareness gradually appears, rendering things more understandable and the path forward more clear.

Purim: Learning to see more

No holiday requires einayim lir’ot more than Purim, a day that revolves around the idea of nes nistar, hidden miracles. Reading the megillah, it is not hard to miss the miraculous nature of the story. Nowhere do we see oceans splitting, fire descending from heaven, or water turning into blood. Hashem’s name does not appear anywhere in the script. The Purim story can easily be read as a natural series of fortunate events where things worked out in the end.

The challenge of Purim is to see more than initially meets the eye. To find the hints in the story that only make sense once Hashem’s guiding hand is part of the equation. We are invited to look deeper, to pick up the traces of Hashem’s providence that were not apparent at first glance. This requires pausing to ask: Why did Mordechai ‘happen’ to overhear the plot to kill Achashveirosh? How did a Jewish woman ‘happen’ to become queen at the very moment that Haman was carrying out a plan to kill the Jewish People? Why did the king ‘happen’ to wake up in the middle of the night at the same time Haman was walking by the palace window?

In this way, Purim is the most relevant holiday to our own lives. None of us encounter open miracles. Yet all of us can look for signs of divine navigation directing us from behind the scenes. Our task is not only to find Hashem’s guidance in Shushan, but to find it now as well. How are the events of my life meant to direct me? What could I be missing? What does Hashem want me to see? Through Purim, we learn to relate to what happens to us, no matter how seemingly insignificant, as not mere occurrences but rather as clues that point to the presence of a divine escort with a plan in mind.

A father who saw

It has only been a couple of weeks since tragedy taught me this message in the worst possible way. A dear friend of mine was plunged into an unimaginable darkness that no parent should ever have to experience: the untimely passing of a child. Listening to the heart-wrenching eulogy for his precious little girl, amidst the immeasurable pain and uncontrollable tears, I was struck by the degree to which he truly saw his daughter. Her affinities, perceptions, quirks, pains, joys, dreams, what concerned her and who she loved - here was a father who had taken the time to really see and know them all.

I regularly sit with people who have had to hold painful childhood experiences by themselves because there was simply no one around to see them. Despite the distress signals they may have been sending, many of them felt that important people in their lives had simply failed to notice. Unfortunately, even well-meaning parents can at times miss what’s really happening in their kids’ worlds.

Not my friend. An exceptional person and father, he had given his daughter the gift of being seen. He chose to hone in on the details, to understand, to look deeper into who his daughter was. As a result, we caught a glimpse of this magnificent child, raised by parents who, although missing her terribly in death, had certainly not missed her beauty in life.

Hindsight is 20-20. We look back and see things with a clarity that was elusive at the time. But we can practice bringing hindsight into present sight by thinking of what our future selves would tell us to tune into now. By switching to a perspective of einayim lir’ot, eyes to see, we’ll pick up on clues to what we may have missed. This is what we do on Purim, and it’s what we can train ourselves to do the rest of the year as well.

L’ilui nishmat Esther Tehila a”h bat HaRav Gavriel Pinchas

Life Lessins is a blog about mental health from a Jewish perspective. It is a collection of insights culled from 15 years of experience as a mental health professional working within a religious context.

My aim in expressing these perspectives is to share, enrich, educate, and engage in an ongoing conversation with the broader community.

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